The Absent Map

Listening recently to both Pres. Bush and Sen. McCain argue that the federal ban on offshore oil drilling should be lifted gave me pause. Election-year pandering and environmental exploration aside, what struck me most the other day was the way in which these arguments were made. Or perhaps more appropriately, the ways in which the argument was not made.

There were no maps. And it's not that maps are always necessary to make an argument, or that as a geographer I'm supposed to think about all maps all the time, but given the sorry state of the average American's geographic education, it seems significant to me that these major policy decisions are being argued for without any maps at all. What's more, these calls to open ANWAR or other offshore locations are almost always unillustrated.

And thinking about it some more, it seems striking to me how invisible geographic images have become during the course of the past decade. While it might too much to ascribe everything to the vagaries of the Bush Administration and its permanent War on Terror, it seems a sad irony that the infinitely extensible American doctrine of power has gone hand in hand with the evacuation of the images of other places. To be sure, Iraq (and to a much lesser extent, Afghanistan) has become a fairly image-saturated place, but they're images from a particularly embedded perspective. And while terms like landscape or prospect or view might seem outdated or otherwise ill-suited to the present discussion, I have a strong feeling that we are beginning to become habituated to seeing in a new way.

Instrumental might be one way to describe that way of seeing, suggesting both sight through instruments (GIS, digital cameras, cell phones, the computer) and sight understood as a particularly instrumental act: to see a thing for a purpose. The map on the front page of the Wall Street Journal the other day suggested that kind of instrumental vision: a box of the Gulf of Mexico, it was freckled with green dots denoting existing oil leases. Instrumental maps, and instrumental visions.

By way of contrast, perhaps, it might help to think of another relatively recent article (restricted access) that argued that maps were instrumental (again!) in helping the American public understand the Pacific as a whole theatre during WWII, suggesting that the kind of synoptic view afforded by maps in the newspaper helped to support the war effort. Thus it might be possible to argue that the very absence of maps, of this whole vision, in the current political climate suggests a conscious effort to divide up the world, to parcel out units into so many useful bits. Further, it insulates particular decisions or arguments from all but the most specific rebuttals. In framing an issue in as limited a way as possible - both rhetorically and geographically - it becomes much easier to dismiss criticism as irrelevant or off-topic.

By way of closing, this process - this occlusion of a kind of geographic vision - isn't something that happens along ideological lines. As earlier, I think it suggests a new and problematic way of seeing. I don't have the text in front of me, but Alan Pred's commencement address (also restricted, I'm afraid) at Berkeley from a couple of years back stands out as a call for an understanding of geography as a kind of political commitment. Powerful ideas, that.


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